Nothing is Above Criticism

By Alex Newhouse

Each horrifying act of violence that occurs in the world cuts at us. Each example of cruelty takes our conceptions of security and turns them around. Violence makes us question those places where we feel comfortable, our ideas about the world and our values. We often wonder how it is possible for such terrible evil to exist in the hearts of humans, and sometimes we think about just how precarious our own grasp on life is. 

But, by and large, these acts make communities band together. Instead of tearing apart, they unify. Instead of sowing discord, they bring forth compassion. 

However, these events also incite anger. Acts of violence seem to rarely stimulate the sort of cowering, debilitating fear that antagonizing forces want. Instead, they bring forth a seething, red-hot pool of anger in many people. Civilians occasionally retaliate with warped and closed-minded ideas of vigilante justice, harming even more innocent people in the process. The familiar term “xenophobia” appears in news programs, social media feeds and speeches, as more level-headed individuals remind the populace that the vast, vast majority of world citizens condemn such senseless violence. From the destruction, from the grief and from the anger, the constructive maxim inevitably arises: do not hate your neighbor for his beliefs and do not fear those beliefs; resist those who would spread evil in this world.

We must be tolerant. We must allow the anger to dissipate, and we must accept everyone as equal in this world. Each and every person alive deserves dignity and respect until they prove otherwise, and their belief of choice does not make them connected to other evil done elsewhere which invoked that faith. To fight back against violence, we must remain inclusive. That is how a people stands up to cruelty. By remaining strong, by not bowing to the pressure of the human tendency to retaliate, we help break down such systems, which produce evil in the first place.

But tolerance is only one element of a humanistic society. We have often shown the strength and ability to move beyond anger and to accept those who are different from us. In our pursuit of peace, however, we must recognize the inconvenient, often incendiary truth that nothing is above criticism. The possibility exists for a tolerant society to fall into relativist traps and to ignore the difficult questions that such violence can present. No community, belief, creed, set of values, philosophy or group is perfect, and each has its own problems and its own capacity for producing unsavory results. 

And so, as educated citizens of the world community, these events serve as catalysts for reassessing our own beliefs and our ideas about the beliefs of others. Philosophies and faiths, even though they are so inherently linked to some people’s lives, cannot be immune to the sort of inspection and reworking that is necessary for a community to prosper and progress. We need to return to those mental spaces where we feel most comfortable, because those spaces have bumps and cracks that can lead us astray. Ultimately, if a belief, creed, philosophy, teaching or set of values is linked to destructive activity, we as a society must take the step to investigate. It is not enough to simply investigate the criminals; rather, we have to question why such criminals might build their decisions to destroy on the basis of beliefs they share.

Every single person in this world deserves respect. A good society cannot function unless it is built on tolerance. Discrimination and bigotry harm not just those who are targeted but the entire community, threatening to undermine the cohesive threads which tie us together. But respecting everyone does not preclude the questioning of values. We cannot lose sight of social improvement and progress. We cannot forget to try to fix the holes in our society. We cannot get complacent. Challenging a belief is not challenging a person’s value, it is not insulting a person’s intelligence and it is not even extending some form of institutional racism. Rather, criticizing a set of values sets us up to advance. Criticism shows us what is broken, and it presents what we can do to make our beliefs even more effective and more worthy of our adherence. 

Nothing is above reproach. Each and every one of us needs to be challenged to move forward. Too often, people do not question each other’s deepest and most strongly held beliefs because of a fear of offending or demeaning. But these are the beliefs that most need questioning. As citizens seeking a more liberal, inclusive, peaceful society, we need to ask ourselves if toleration of individuals must equate to acceptance of every aspect of every belief. It is time to move forward and to have the courage to ask those difficult questions. Beliefs, creeds, philosophies and sets of values have the power to incite people to action. As such, each of these should be subject to inspection and review. We need to look at our set of beliefs and investigate what we can do differently, and if these beliefs might have some capacity to warp collective action in a certain way. If so, we can work to fix those holes and move toward a more peaceful future.